The ties that bind are lies. Urban tales are "barefaced lies." These myths and legends boldly, proudly, lie. You wonder how anybody believes, but we do, deeply, passionately.
One reason we believe urban tales and other lies, such as rumours, is that friends tell us. The most effective way to advertise is "word of mouth." Friends tell friends who tell friends. If people are talking, your product is selling. The cyclical revival of "Hush Puppies" confirms the efficacy of "word of mouth."
What works for products, works with more force to brace the ties that bind us to others. When a friend relates an urban tale, you suspend logic about the event. What you hear is what she or he implies about you and him or her. You hear "We're friends"; "You're special" and "You need to hear this tale." These are the most importance messages in an urban tale.
Lurking in social lies is a second set of messages. These messages confirm what's important to us. The first set of lurking messages reminds us about the basis for our decisions; that is, values. Values include beauty and love, belief in education and science, and the need for trust and honour. The second set reminds us about the right way to act; that is, norms. Norms include obeying the rules of the road, not hurting anybody on purpose and do your family and social duty.
Here's a version of a well-known lie. Give it a quick read. What messages lurk herein?
John Florence Sullivan and his wife, Portland Hoffa-Sullivan are middle aged and upper middle class. They've three teenage sons, and a solid 25-year marriage. Life is good, despite the pressures of a two-career family life. John's an accountant. Portland's an engineer.
There's one recurring problem in their life, teenagers and Christmas. Christmas hasn't always been difficult. When their sons were younger, it was much easier, if more hectic. Buying gifts for a 14, 16 and 18-year old makes Christmas much more difficult, if less hectic.
A half-hour after opening their presents, their sons are out of the house, leaving mom and pop to a peaceful day and evening. "Buying presents for teenagers is surely a problem that plagues parents in every modern society," said John Florence. "Maybe we could just give money?" "No," said Portland, "and that's that!"
The Sullivans planned a day - "a full day, it will be," said John Florence - of Christmas shopping. "How's Tuesday," asked Portland.
Tuesday began just after 9 am and dragged "on and on," said John Florence, into the evening. The trail of Amex receipts ran from Bayshore to Carlingwood to Billings Bridge to the Rideau Centre to Place d'Orleans and, to end it all, to St. Laurent Shopping Centre. Eventually, the Jaguar crammed with bags and packages, they headed north on St. Laurent Blvd., and home.
As they passed a famous spicy fried food take-out, Portland said it was cooks day off. "I'm too tired to make anything," she said. "We should really pick-up a quick dinner."
John Florence wheeled the car around and on to the restaurant lot. He pulled up to the drive-through, placed the order, drove to the next window, paid for the order. He wondered why the service person was so surly when he handed over the food. "It wasn't exactly a difficult job like being an accountant," he thought.
As he was about to turn the car back on to St. Laurent Blvd. and home, Portland said "Why not park, here. We can eat in the car?" They did.
As they ate, Portland said, "My chicken tastes really funny." She didn't think much about it and continued to eat, offering an occasional complaint or two between bites. John Florence thought his chicken tasted fine, good, in fact. Portland continued to eat and complain about the chicken.
Growing impatient, John Florence asked to taste it. "Yuk," he exclaimed, as he spit out the food right away; "it's rotten!" He turned on the interior light of the car to examine his wife's dinner only to find she was eating a crisp, nicely floured spicy fried rodent - head, eyes, tail and all.
Without thinking, John Florence slammed the idling car into gear and raced on to St. Laurent Blvd. This time he headed south toward Smyth Road and the General Campus of the Ottawa Hospital. He stopped the car under the overhang at the Emergency entrance; bounded round to the passenger side and opened the door.
He picked up Portland and carried her into the hospital. The startled ER staff eventually directed him to a vacant examining cubicle. Shortly, a physician arrived. She examined Portland and asked for the details about what happened. Her diagnosis was dire. She arranged for admission, but declined further comment.
Portland grew worse. No one seemed able to offer help or hope. The situation was right off "The Sopranos," season six, episode two.
Someone leaked the incident to the media. It descended on the General Campus of the Ottawa Hospital as ants on an overturned honey pot. The hospital would only confirm Portland Hoffa-Sullivan was an in-patient.
Talk among nurses, health care aides and other hospital workers implied that anybody who discussed the case would lose their job. Only the physician in charge, Dr. Sadie Marx, and an official hospital spokesperson, Benjamin Kabulsky, could comment on or off the record.
Two days after admitting Portland to hospital, a lawyer for the spicy fried food company approached John Florence. He was standing outside her sixth floor room when the lawyer walked up to him. "The company," he said, "would pay John Florence $35,000 and all the medical expenses if he didn't talk with the media or sue the company." "This is Canada," said John Florence, "there are no medical expenses to pay."
The lawyer looked confused. "There are no medical expenses! How un-American," he said to himself.
A week or so later, the cash offer increased to $50,000. Ten days later, it went up to $100,000. Another cash offer of $250,000 came two hours before Portland passed away - twenty-three days after eating the crispy friend rodent and two days before Christmas.
By this point, the national media was on the story." Newsworld" positioned an up-link in the street, next to the hospital parking lot. CTV sent a high school journalism student to cover the event between classes.
!E Entertainment paid John Florence $300,000 for exclusive broadcast rights to his story. The Star paid $75,000 for the exclusive rights to a photograph of Portland in her hospital bed. Paul Verhoeven offered $50,000 against $500,000 for the film rights, if produced with an X-rating. All monies were in USA funds, of course.
A friend advised John Florence to contact a major Toronto law firm specializing in wrongful death civil action. On behalf of John Florence and his three sons, Dewey, Cheatum and Howe filed a $100,000,000 (USA) suit against the food company, headquartered in Seattle. The suit is set to go to trail on 23 March 2007 - fifteen months to the day after Portland passed away. It was also six months to day after John Florence was released from hospital following a near fatal car accident that occurred on the day he took possession of his 2007 Ferrari, which had been purchased at the urging of a new friend, Fred Goldman.
The tale is a lie. "All lies and jest," sing Paul Simon and Artie Garfunkel. We hear what we want to hear, "and disregard the rest." Lies are no matter, when the goal is to build and preserve friendships.
This lie is a version of a tale about a fast food chain specializing in spicy fried fowl. I first heard it 45 years ago. Before my time, the tale focused on oriental food restaurants and cats. Concern about food not prepared at home is as old as the modern restaurant - about 300 years - and maybe older.
What wisdom lurks in this tale? Where are the messages that go beyond friendship? Why send information this way? How does the medium, urban tales, affect the message?
The wisdom is knowledge we need to get through the day. What's right? What's wrong? What's important, and what's not? Though we have this knowledge, we need reminders and reinforcement.
Trust, blame and the cruelty of greed are three of the messages lurking in this tale. You can't trust a big company; growing shareholder wealth is its aim. If products are safe, that's good. If products are unsafe, some damage is acceptable. The Corvair, SUV tires and pharmaceuticals confirm the negligence big companies and our need to be wary.
Customer concerns often fall near the bottom of the list, just ahead of workers. Workers and customers are the same people. As customers, workers worry about product safety, quality and price. As workers, customers worry about a fair wage, benefits and safety.
There are limits and laws. If the tale of the spicy fried rat were true, thrice, the fast food chain would be out of business. Caution is always good advice, but the tale sells the danger.
Women are at fault in most urban tales. The tale suggests that, no matter how weary, Portland should have cooked the meal at home. Usually, she oversaw the cook; when cook had a day off, it's implied, Portland prepared the family meals. Home cooking is not only best, but also safest. Portland shirked her family duty; urged eating food not prepared at home and paid the heaviest price. The man, John Florence, comes across as rational and heroic.
Urban tales often depict women as stupid. Portland kept eating the meal, though it tasted unusual. John Florence took one bite and knew something was wrong. At home, Portland safely fed her family. Away from home, it took John to confirm the food was bad. There's an ugly message about women and men lurking in this tale.
John Francis glommed his chance to make money from the misfortune. The tale implies he dickered with the spicy fried food chain. He took the poor diagnosis as his cue, and dodged offers until the end was near. The tale casts the media as coarse, mindless vulgars and worse. The conditional offer from Paul Verhoeven and mention of Fred Goldman heightens the cynicism.
More messages lurk in this tale. Some versions cast the cook as a foreigner. That message suggests immigrants aren't reliable, don't appreciate a second chance or, these days, are terrorists. Logic goes wanting. Would eating a spicy fried rat be deadly? If the rat were so easily detectable, the cook would've spotted it. The replacement must be intentional. Wouldn't others working the restaurant notice the rat? Why wouldn't they speak up? Is there a conspiracy in place? He was such a friendly old kernel; even passed his last days in pedantic Toronto: why would he do such a horror to Portland.
The wisdom is clear. Trust, blame and exploitation are major issues. The tale sets an agenda of topics to ponder. Don't trust big organizations. Women carry the main responsibility for the welfare of the family, and may be of questionable intelligence. Solecism, in this tale, greed, must endure criticism. Urban tales are an efficient way to swap ideas.
In a friendship, the common place takes on greater meaning. A friendship leads us to neglect common sense.
Messages about trust, blame and exploitation travel on the back of friendships. Common knowledge mostly comes this way. We want our friends safe, secure and successful. We subtly urge caution, doing their duty, knowing their place and forgoing ill-gotten gains. Such advice ensures an easier, if boring, life. What are friends for, if not to keep us on the right path by telling us lies?
Paul Simon wrote "The Boxer" (Paul Simon Music, BMI: 1969), performed by Simon and Garfunkel (Columbia Records single: 44785).
dr george pollard is a Sociometrician and Social Psychologist at Carleton University, in Ottawa, where he currently conducts research and seminars on "Media and Truth," Social Psychology of Pop Culture and Entertainment as well as umbrella repair.
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